One of the great kingdoms of the ancient world and a country connected in various ways with the history of the Jews since the time of the Babylonian captivity. As a designation the name "Persia" is employed in two ways: commonly, it denotes the vast Persian empire extending from the Caspian Sea on the north to the Persian Gulf on the south, and from the River Tigris on the west to the Indus on the southeast; more rarely, the name connotes the province of Persis or Persia proper, the region lying between Susiana, or Elam, and Carmania—in other words, the territory corresponding to the modern Fars. In the Hebrew Scriptures this second connotation is exceptional, being confined to the somewhat doubtful reference in Ezek. xxvii. 10, xxxviii. 5, whereas the former or broader application of the term is found in a score of Biblical passages and in the Apocryphal books of the Old Testament (II Chron. xxxvi. 20; Esth. i. 3, 14, 18; Dan. viii. 20; x. 13, 20; xi. 2; I Esd. iii. 9 et al.), not to mention a dozen references to the Medes and Persians as a united kingdom (see Media).
The Persian language, or the Iranian group of languages, belongs to the Aryan or Indo-European group of tongues. Three stages of linguistic development may be recognized: (1) Old Iranian, comprising the language of the Zoroastrian scriptures (see Avesta) and of the Old Persian cuneiform inscriptions of the Achæmenian kings; (2) Middle Iranian, the Pahlavi language and literature of the Sassanian dynasty; (3) New Iranian, comprising Modern Persian, dating from the tenth century of the Christian era, and other spoken Iranian dialects, as the Afghan, Baluchi, Kurdish, and Ossetic. An acquaintance with the Avestan and Old Persian languages and literatures is of value to the critical student of the Jewish scriptures and of Israelitish history because of Persian allusions which occur in the Bible from the time of the Exile to that of the Talmud (see Avesta; Daniel; Esther; Ezra; Talmud) and because Persian was to a great extent the language of every-day life among the Jews of Babylonia (see also Judæo-Persian), but more especially because of the Zoroastrian influences which, it is generally claimed, affected Judaism during the long period in which the Israelites were largely under the Persian rule (see Zoroastrianism). In Pahlavi, or Middle Persian,literature there are likewise numerous allusions to the Jews (see Pahlavi Literature, Jews in). A knowledge of Modern Persian, moreover, contributes considerably to the understanding of Jewish literary history because of the documents written in Judæo-Persian.
The historical development of Persia may roughly be divided into four periods: (1) earliest Iranian period, prior to the rise of the kingdom of Media (before 700 B.C.); (2) the Median period; (3) the period of the great Persian empire, down to the Arab conquest (550 B.C. to 650 C.E.); (4) the period of Mohammedan Persia (650 to the present day). The history of Iran before the rise of Median power is largely a matter of conjecture, but is of interest because of its bearing upon the question of the religious influence of Israel upon Iran, or of Iran upon Israel, in antiquity. The names of such rulers as Hoshang, Jemshid, Feridun, and others, whose reigns would date back as far as 4000 B.C., belong to the common Iranian period, as shown by the Avesta, the Pahlavi literature, and Firdausi's "Shah Namah" (Book of Kings), but the statements regarding their kingdoms are mostly legends, behind which one must search for the historical facts. Jemshid's reign, for example, is placed by fable at about 3000 B.C., and is said to have been the Golden Age of the world. According to the Avesta it was during this period that a terrible winter destroyed everything on the earth, and against it the god Ormuzd commanded Jemshid to build a "vara" (enclosure), in order to preserve the best of mankind (Avesta, "Vend." ii. 1-43). With reference to Iran and her neighbors it is known from the evidence of Assyrian inscriptions that Assyria made her claims to sovereignty over Media from the time of Shalmaneser II. (935 B.C.) to the days of Sennacherib (705 B.C.). Familiar to all historians, moreover, is the statement in the Bible (II Kings xvii. 6) that in the ninth year of Hosea (722 B.C.) the King of Assyria took Israel captive and "placed" some of the Jews whom he deported "in the cities of the Medes"—an event which may have a possible bearing in connection with certain likenesses between the Zoroastrian religion and Judaism (see Zoroastrianism). The Assyrian domination of Media was overthrown by the Median prince Deioces, who cast off the Assyrian yoke and established the Median sovereignty about 700 B.C. (comp. Herodotus, "Hist." i. 97 et seq.). For the history of the Median rule down to the rise of the Persian power, and for the allusions to the law of the Medes and Persians in the Scriptures, see the article Media.
With the overthrow of the Median sway by Cyrus (550 B.C.) and the union of the crowns of Media and Persia, the real history of the great Persian empire, of especial interest to the Jews, begins (see Cyrus). The conquest of Lydia took place in 546, and the major part of Asia Minor and Egypt fell subsequently under Persian rule. The taking of Babylon in 539 by Cyrus inaugurated a new era in Jewish history. As to the religious toleration of this great king there is little room for doubt, judging from his own inscriptions preserved in the Babylonian tongue and from his attitude, as recorded in the Bible, toward the Jews. There is no convincing reason for questioning as a historic fact the Biblical statement that Cyrus permitted the Jews to return from their captivity in Babylon to Jerusalem, and that he showed them certain signs of favor. These statements are found in II Chron. xxxvi. 22-23; Ezra i. 1-11, iii. 1-13, iv. 3,and elsewhere, and are in keeping with the enthusiasm of Isaiah, who saw in the Persian king the "shepherd" and "anointed" of the Lord, "the eagle from the east" bearing victory and ransom for the Jewish people (Isa. xli. 2; xliv. 28; xlv. 1-3, 13). Current ideas like these may account for the Apocryphal statement made later by Ṭabari (900 C.E.), that the mother of Cyrus was a Jewess—an assertion which he makes equally regarding the Zoroastrian king Bahman, who is identified with Artaxerxes I. (see Ṭabari, Zotenberg transl., i. 502, 507). The expansion of the kingdom of Cyrus westward had unquestionably its ultimate influence on the history of the Jews, just as its development eastward wrought important changes in the Oriental world. Judea was a Persian province till the end of the Achæmenian rule and remained in more or less close connection with Persia in subsequent times.
On the death of Cyrus, his son Cambyses succeeded to the throne (530 B.C.), but died a violent death (522 B.C.) after an unsuccessful campaign in Egypt and Africa and a discreditable reign. A Magian priest, Bardiya, "the False Smerdis," usurped the crown and reigned for seven months, until Darius, a member of a side branch of the Persian royal family, discovered the imposture, slew the pretender, and swayed the Achæmenian scepter with conspicuous ability for nearly half a century.
Darius (522-486 B.C.) continued the liberal policy of Cyrus toward the Jews and favored the rebuilding of the Temple at Jerusalem (Ezra v. 13-17, vi. 1-15), a policy which is in keeping with what is known from other sources of the views of this ruler (see Darius I.). His successor was his son Xerxes (486-465), prominent in the Bible as Ahasuerus and of importance in Jewish history because of his acceptance of Esther to succeed his divorced queen Vashti. See Ahasuerus; Esther; Haman; Mordecai. Xerxes was in turn followed by his son Artaxerxes I. (Longimanus; 465-424), in whose reign occurred the important events for Jewish political history that are recorded by Ezra and Nehemiah (see Artaxerxes I.). His successors on the throne were Darius II. (424-404), Artaxerxes II. (404-358), Artaxerxes III. (358-337; the Jews came several times into conflict with him on disputed points), Arses (337-335), and Darius III. (Codomannus, 335-330), the last of the Achæmenian line.
Illustrated Persian Manuscript in Hebrew Characters.
The invasion and subjugation of Persia by Alexander the Great (330-323 B.C.) put an end to the Achæmenian kingdom (see Alexander). The rule of the Seleucids succeeded the Macedonian dominion and lasted for more than seventy years, when the Parthian sway of the Arsacids, who are regarded as being of Scythian extraction, gained the supremacy. In matters of religion the Parthians seem to have acted tolerantly toward other faiths, which was advantageous to the Jews, judging from the statements of Josephus ("Ant." xviii. 9, §§ 1 et seq.; "B. J." Preface, §§ 1 and 2; comp. Rawlinson, "Sixth Monarchy," pp. 225, 238). The rulers of the Parthian line governed Iran for nearly five centuries (250 B.C-226 C.E.). Most prominent among them were the several monarchs who bore the name of Arsaces, after the founder of the line, and also the different sovereigns who adopted the names of Artaban, Phraates, Mithridates, Gotarzes, and Volageses. The last of the Parthian kings, Artaban V., was defeated and slain in battle by Ardashir I. (Papakan; 226 C.E.), of the house of Sasan, and a new dynasty thus came to the throne and swayed the fortunes of Iran for over four hundred years (226-651).
The Sassanids were of pure Persian blood with no alien admixture, as were, originally, the Parthians, and they were ardent supporters of the ancient Zoroastrian faith. More than this, they were enthusiastic upholders of the old Iranian national feeling; and they succeeded, in part at least, in reviving the fading ideal of a great Persian empire. The characteristic names of this period—a period marked by conflicts with the Eastern Empire of Byzantium, as the Parthian had been with Rome and the Achæmenian with Greece—are Ardashir, Shahpuhr (Sapor), Yezdegerd, Bahram, and Chosroes. Important for Jewish history is the fact that Yezdegerd I. (399-420 C.E.) had a Jewish wife for queen, who became the mother of Bahram V. (420-438).
The opening of the reign of Bahram V., who is generally known as "Bahram Gor," from his fondness for hunting the wild ass ("gor"), was signalized by a victory over the White Huns (Haital or Hephthalites), but was later darkened by the defeat he sustained in war with the Byzantine empire, which compelled Persia to accept terms of peace with her traditional foe (421 C.E.). For references to Jewish history in Zoroastrian literature of Sassanid times and for allusions to Yezdegerd's Jewish wife see Pahlavi Literature. In their religious attitude toward other beliefs, however, the Sassanids were often very intolerant, as is shown by their persecution, at different times, of the Jews, Christians, and the followers of the sects of Mani and Mazdak. The Jews suffered especially under Ormazd IV. (578-590), although relief was had under the unfortunately short reign of Bahram Tshubin. They joined forces with his renowned successor Chosroes Parwiz (591-628), whose reign is best known to the West because of the wars waged at this time by Persia against the Christian emperor Heraclius. The Sassanid power was now manifestly on the decline, and its end came in sight with the appearance of the Mohammedan régime.
The Arab conquest of Persia and the defeat and death of Yezdegerd III. (651 C.E.) mark the close of the Sassanid rule and the fall of the national power of Iran. It signalized also the overthrow of Zoroastrianism as the national faith of Persia. Thenceforth Persia's creed became Mohammedan, and her history became marked more and more by periods of invasion, conquest, and foreign rule or misrule. A series of dynasties, of shorter or longer duration, as the Ommiads, Abbassids (750), Ghaznavids (961-1186), Seljuks, and Tatars, some of them distinguished by rulers of rare ability—the Mongol conqueror Timur Lang (or Tamerlane; 1336-1405), for example—fill the pages of Persia's history for nearly a thousand years. With the rise of Shah Abbas the Great (1585-1628) the last influential Persian rule is reached.
It has been sufficiently shown that there have been Jews in Persia since the earliest times, and that the history of the Jews has been associated with Persia in various ways. The Biblical allusions to Rages (Avestan, "Ragha"; Old Persian, "Raga"), Ecbatana (Old Persian, "Hagmatana"; Modern Persian, "Hamadan"), and Susa might be added to others that prove the fact. The presence of Israelites in Iran may have been due originally to deportation from other countries or to colonization, to relations arising from conquest or from political connections; but trade and commerce also must have contributed since the earliest times; and Jewish communities have maintained themselves in the leading Persian cities down to the present time, especially in such business centers as Hamadan, Ispahan, Kermanshah, Shiraz, Teheran, and Meshed (where they have been much persecuted).
Some idea as to the number and condition of the Jews in Persia may be gathered from the articles on these several cities and from the following quotation from Curzon's "Persia" (ii. 510-511):
"Usually compelled to live apart in a ghetto, or separate quarter of the towns, they have from time immemorial suffered from disabilities of occupation, dress, and habits which have marked them out as social pariahs from their fellow creatures. The majority of Jews in Persia are engaged in trade, in jewellery, in wine and opium manufacture, as musicians, dancers, scavengers, pedlars, and in other professions to which is attached no great respect. They rarely attain to a leading mercantile position. In Isfahan, where there are said to be 3,700, and where they occupy a relatively better status than elsewhere in Persia, they are not permitted to wear the kolah or Persian head-dress, to have shops in the bazaar, to build the walls of their houses as high as a Moslem neighbour's, or to ride in the streets. In Teheran and Kashan they are also to be found in large numbers and enjoying a fair position. In Shiraz they are very badly off. At Bushire they are prosperous and free from persecution. As soon, however, as any outburst of bigotry takes place in Persia and elsewhere the Jews are apt to be the first victims."
Curzon, Persia and the Persian Question, 2 vols., London, 1892;
Justi, Persia, in the series of History of All Nations, 2d ed., Philadelphia, 1904;
Justi, Gesch. Irans bis zum Ausgang der Sasaniden, and Horn, Gesch. Irans in Islamitischer Zeit, in Geiger and Kuhn, Grundriss der Iranischen Philologie, Strasburg, 1897;
Duncker, History of Antiquity (transl. from the German), vol. v., London, 1881;
Rawlinson, The Seven Great Monarchies of the Eastern World, 3 vols., New York, 1884;
Gobineau, Histoire des Perses, 2 vols., Paris, 1869;
Darmesteter, Coup d'Æil sur l'Histoire de la Perse, Paris, 1885;
Browne, A Year Amongst the Persians, London, 1883;
Scheftelowitz, Arisches im Alten Testament I.-II., Eine Sprachwissenschaftliche und Kulturhistorische Untersuchung, Berlin, 1901-1903;
Geiger and Kuhn, Grundriss der Iranischen Philologic, 2 vols., Strasburg, 1895-1904 (a standard work on the language, literature, history, and civilization, by various authorities; contains full bibliographies).